Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

Discovery in the Morrois: Antecedents and Analogues

Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

Discovery in the Morrois: Antecedents and Analogues

Article excerpt

The episode in which Tristran and Yseut, under sentence of death for adultery, are discovered asleep by the vengeful Marc but unwittingly once more win his pardon is perhaps the most striking of the many dramatic scenes that make up the early Tristran poems. Each version has its own special qualities; Beroul's in particular, with its careful blending of poetic and narrative techniques, displays the sensitive craftsmanship of its author. Modern scholars have expended even greater effort in attempts to determine the exact significance of this scene, and I hope to add elsewhere to the number of these interpretations. (1) In this article, though, I deal only with the narrative elements used by Beroul in putting together the episode, in an attempt to show not only the varied nature of his sources but the way in which he combined and adapted them in order to create his own individual retelling of a story that may very well already have been familiar to his audience. (2) I have already examined possible sources for the Separating Sword as a symbol of chastity, rejecting the hypothesis of a Celtic origin and preferring to derive it from the network of Amicus et Amelius stories that had been so popular on the continent from the late eleventh century at least; (3) but Celtic sources may well have influenced some of the other interwoven narrative elements. This article surveys a number of tales that may have provided ideas for the individual components, or may themselves have been influenced by Beroul's careful and artistic composition.


It is only natural that a warrior in a situation as dangerous as Tristran's should keep his sword beside him, unsheathed, as he sleeps, ready for instant use if need be. This explains why, in Beroul's version, Tristran leaves his sword where he does (ll. 1805-06); indeed, when he is woken by Yseut's dreaming scream, his first action is to jump up and grab the sword: 'Esfreez s'est, saut sus ses piez, | L'espee prent com home iriez' (ll. 2079-80). Chretien makes his hero Cliges, who has almost as great a need to be wary after eloping with Fenice, act in a similar way. (4) It is logical, therefore, that an intruder's first action should be to possess himself of the sword, or somehow place it out of the sleeper's reach. This is what Hogni does in the thirteenth-century Norse Thidreks saga, when he comes across the sleeping watchman of a potential enemy. Once the man is disarmed, Hogni has no hesitation in waking him and enlisting his support.

[The watchman] was armed and he had laid his sword under himself and the hilt was sticking out. Hogni took the sword and drew it out and cast it away. He nudged him with his right foot and told him to wake up.

This man sprang up and looked for his sword, but he could not find it. (5)

A similar treatment of this scene occurs in the analogous German Nibelungenlied. (6) Logic demands that Marc should act in a similar way, and Eilhart makes his Marke cautiously obey this demand:

He saw the sword lying between them and, since they were asleep, carefully reached for it. He took Tristrant's weapon from the noble pair and drew his own. He placed Tristrant's in his scabbard. (7)

The only part of the account that is at all surprising is that Marke has not drawn his own sword earlier.

If Marc did no more than remove Tristran's sword, then, there would be no need to search for models or analogues; but the scene is complex, and its other elements require further investigation. Beroul is here concerned less with realism and logic than with creating a powerful emotional impact. His Marc is not cautious (in this scene, at any rate); he is impulsive, and so overcome with rage and jealousy that he rushes into the lovers' hut with sword drawn, ready to kill them both, without stopping to check whether, several hours after discovery by the forester, they are still asleep, waiting in ambush, or even still there. …

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